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Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the dictator whose family ruled Haiti for decades, reemerged there this weekend after spending nearly a quarter century in exile. His return to Haiti is an unexpected development in a country reeling from an earthquake and sputtering through national elections. We explore the Duvalier family history and what the return could mean for Haiti.
- Joseph Guyler Delva Haiti reporter for Reuters and the BBC
- Johanna Mendelson-Forman Senior Associate, Americas Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, "Women in Combat" the next debate about our military will focus on the roles that females play or do not play on the battlefield.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, a stream of violent memories comes back to Haiti. Jean-Claude Duvalier, the former Haitian dictator known to the world as "Baby Doc" returned to Port-au-Prince this weekend after spending nearly 25 years in exile. He says this is not about politics and that he has only come back to help his country, which is still reeling from last year's devastating earthquake and is now muddling through a controversial round of national elections.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut the Duvalier family history in Haiti is long, complicated and violent, which is why people throughout the world are concerned about what "Baby Doc" may really be up to. Joining us by telephone is Johanna Mendelson-Forman, senior associate at the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Johanna, thank you for joining us.
MS. JOHANNA MENDELSON-FORMANThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIJohanna, the latest reports we've got is that Haitian police have taken Jean-Claude Duvalier out of his hotel today. They haven't said whether he is being detained for crimes committed under his brutal regime. He was led by a contingent of police to a waiting SUV. What first would be your speculation about what's going on? And secondarily, for those of our listeners who are unfamiliar with who Jean-Claude Duvalier is, can you tell us a little bit about his history and his relationship to "Papa Doc" Duvalier?
MENDELSON-FORMANWell, first, just a brief history. "Baby Doc" succeeded his father, Francois Duvalier. He was born in 1951 and when his father died in 1971, he was the successor. He was 19 years old at the time and he basically, in many ways, ruled as a regent over a country that had already suffered under the tyrannical rule of his father. So from the time that he actually took office until he was, you know, overthrown, he brutalized the country and continued to follow in the same really negative type of regime that his father had...
NNAMDIFor those who might be wondering exactly how he brutalized the country, can you talk a little bit about the security force he inherited from his father, known as the Tonton Macoute?
MENDELSON-FORMANRight. They were a paramilitary force. There was also, and people confuse this, an army in Haiti, but the real source of instability and terror were the Tonton Macoute, who were these paramilitary police that served at the will of the dictator. And particularly in Port-au-Prince and also in the countryside, there were secret police that went after people and rode roughshod over people who didn't want to comply with what the authority of the father or the dictator did.
MENDELSON-FORMANSo they were a tremendous source of terrible torture and criminality. And in fact, one of the things that has always plagued Haiti is the legacy of the Tonton Macoute. While they're gone, people have still remembered that this kind of regime could come back at any time because they were not a legal force.
NNAMDIYou can join this conversation by calling us at 800-433-8850 to express your concerns or your insights as to why Jean-Claude Duvalier may have returned to Haiti. For you, Johanna Mendelson-Forman, it's been no secret that, for years, Jean-Claude Duvalier wanted to return to Haiti. What, as far as you understand in the past, was keeping him from doing so before? And what do you see that may have changed that caused him to do so now?
MENDELSON-FORMANWell he -- you know, clearly, he felt a great tie to the country that he was exiled from. He had political asylum in France, but it was denied there. He lived in France until his return. And he did have a Haitian passport, but it had expired. It was issued during the interim government of Latortue after Aristide, the former president of Haiti, departed suddenly in February of 2004.
MENDELSON-FORMANWhat I wonder and this is an interesting fact, is the passport had expired and here he got on an international flight with an expired passport. And it does leave one to pause about what kind of security Air France had to let any traveler travel on an expired document.
NNAMDIJoining us now by telephone from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, is Joseph Guyler Delva. Guy Delva is a reporter for Reuters and the BBC based in Haiti. Guy Delva, can you tell us exactly what happened this morning when Jean-Claude Duvalier was taken from his hotel by police?
MR. JOSEPH GUYLER DELVAYes. As I'm talking to you right now, Jean-Claude Duvalier is at the prosecutor's office and he is with his lawyers and his companion, Veronique Roy. And he is going to be questioned in a few minutes by the chief prosecutor of Port-au-Prince, I'm talking about Aristidas Auguste. And now, the prosecutor told me earlier that Jean-Claude Duvalier is no longer free of his movement. He is under official control and he being escorted by the police. And at the prosecutor's office where I am, there are a lot of police there making sure that everything is okay.
MR. JOSEPH GUYLER DELVAAnd there were some groups of supporters of Duvalier, they were also running after the cars, police cars and the car that was transporting Jean-Claude Duvalier from his hotel to the prosecutor's office. And outside, there are people, some asking and trying to know what's going on and, you know, people curious to know what's going on. And there are a lot of journalists, national and international journalists here. So it's something that Haiti did not expect at this time, but it's happening right before our eyes. So we here (word?) prosecutor's office so we should know soon what's going on.
NNAMDIGuy Delva, if I were to ask you if, on the one hand, you think that the prosecutors are likely to charge him with crimes committed in Haiti which would require keeping him in Haiti and trying him there or if, on the other hand, they are more likely to be trying to make sure that he leaves Haiti to avoid the possible results of a prosecution of Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti, which one would you choose?
DELVAYeah, I don't think they can back down now. They cannot back off. I mean, now I think the (word?) will have to continue because there are other people filing complaints against Jean-Claude Duvalier for crimes committed under his presidency. And you also have the Haitian government that already had an issue with him on money being stolen from the public treasury. That was already pending. And they are re-activating that and the prosecutor probably will have questions about that and other things so it is clear that this is something that will be going on for a while, the judicial proceedings. And I don't see how Jean-Claude Duvalier can get out of this.
DELVABut about the passport issue, I heard...
NNAMDIJohanna Mendelson-Forman here...
DELVA...yeah Mendelson, yeah. I mean, the French ambassador explained that he has residency. He's a resident of France. As a resident, he has the right to travel from Paris to Guadeloupe, which is a field territory of France, a French territory. So from there, he -- as a Haitian, he has the right to, you know, even with an expired passport, he could still board a plane to come back to his country. That is possible. That's not against any practical (sounds like) rule.
DELVAI mean, so -- but when they learned that Jean-Claude Duvalier was coming back to Haiti, he was already in the plane on the way to Haiti when they actually knew. That's what the ambassador said. And the Haitian government said also they knew it at the last minute. I mean, they didn't know he was coming so I don't know who is telling the truth. Who is telling the truth? I don't know. But it seems that it caught some people by surprise and we can't know for sure. Because it's weird that Jean-Claude Duvalier could just board a plane and come back to Haiti without any guarantee.
DELVABut still the Haitian authorities said that they didn't know about it and the French authorities said that they didn't know about it. They said, as a resident, they don't have to watch him. He's a free citizen in France. He had a right to go to other territories, French territories, so that they did not have to watch him...
DELVA...take an international flight to Haiti from the French territory, Guadeloupe, so he -- that's when they were alerted -- alerted about his departure...
NNAMDIOne final...one final question for you, Guy Delva. You mentioned some of his supporters who were gathering outside the prosecutor's office. Is there any way of assessing how much support Jean-Claude Duvalier has in Haiti today?
DELVAThere was a group outside the hotel -- not really outside the hotel, but as they were leaving (word?) , you know, a growing number of supporters who came to say, free Duvalier, arrest Preval, but free Duvalier. That's what they were chanting and -- but they were running after the cars, the vehicles. But in front of the prosecutor's office now, there are not many of them. You can't even tell whether they are really supporters of Duvalier, but there are a lot of people curious to know what is going on.
NNAMDIGuy Delva, I know you have to get back to the prosecutor's office to cover exactly what is going on there so thank you very much for joining us.
NNAMDIGuy Delva is a reporter for Reuters and the BBC. He is based in Haiti. He joined us by phone from Port-au-Prince. Johanna Mendelson-Forman, what do you make of this? Apparently, if Guy Delva is correct, there are likely to be charges brought against Jean-Claude Duvalier and that will be occurring in the middle of a confusing election situation, in the middle of the earthquake relief and in the middle of the cholera outbreak.
MENDELSON-FORMANWell it's certainly going to put a tremendous stress on a government that is already suffering from a great deal of strain under the earthquake. It's not clear yet and we'll have to wait and see what the charges are. There are many, many victims of Duvalier's excesses in the country and I'm sure that they would have to use a legal system that is operating at a very minimum with few employees. But I think it's -- historically, we know that, you know, correcting and righting wrongs of the past, particularly in the area of human rights violations, it's really important to take care of this kind of effort inside a country rather than doing it outside.
MENDELSON-FORMANBut clearly, it's going to stress the system. And as somebody talked to me this morning, it takes one's eyes off the main goal, which is to create the resolution to an election which is still not settled. So it's a distracting move and I think that that's the biggest challenge.
NNAMDIWhen we were in Haiti last November, we actually saw quite a few pro-Duvalier graffiti in various places. Do you have any idea whether there is a significant pro-Duvalier following in Haiti that would lead to chaos and confusion if they attempted to try him in the middle of the current situation?
MENDELSON-FORMANWell, I think it would be hard to pinpoint what would be the cause of the chaos and confusion. The sense is -- and I mean, this is just a street word that Duvalier people have this nostalgic memory of things being stable and people being fed and a system operating. But just remember, Kojo, and you saw this yourself, that half the population is under 25 in Haiti.
MENDELSON-FORMANAnd so the people on the street who are protesting are not the people who even knew of the Duvaliers' work. They weren't even born in many cases when Duvalier, "Baby Doc," was in power. So all of this is second nature -- second-hand knowledge and a false sense of stability. But I think it points or is symptomatic of a bigger issue, that Haiti needs a legitimate government and they need to settle, first, a resolution to this flawed election that we saw unfolding and anything that distracts from that particular closure, which is important not only for Haitian legitimacy, but for moving the funds for reconstruction forward is a diversionary tactic.
NNAMDIWhich brings me to this right now. Because of the situation you have just described in Haiti, there are some, maybe just a few people, who believe Haiti is in an ideal situation for the ascension of power of a strong man. Given the United Nations presence in Haiti, given the U.S. interest in Haiti, how likely is that to happen?
MENDELSON-FORMANWell, I don't think that that is going to happen anytime soon because of mechanisms that are already in place. The interim Haitian reconstruction committee, which has an 18-month term, will continue to go on and could be extended. I also sense that the donor community who are actively not only supporting the government of Haiti, but the U.N. would rather, you know, consider redoing an election than countenancing some kind of strong man or strong woman in that -- whatever case it is coming in.
MENDELSON-FORMANSo I don't think that there's a stomach for that. But I think it more speaks to the feeling in the street of utter despair and utter frustration in a country that has neither delivered for them after the earthquake and is now in an even more precarious situation without a government.
NNAMDIMeanwhile, former President Jean-Bertand Aristide has been also living in exile in South Africa. Should we be expecting to be hearing from him? Should we be expecting to be hearing from him about trying to come back to Haiti anytime soon as well, just to make a confusing situation more confusing?
MENDELSON-FORMANWell, yes. Today, there were rumors that he was also making his way back to Haiti. But, you know, with a rumor mill, or radio 32 as they call it in Haiti, is very strong force. My sense is that the bigger challenge now is to figure out how they use this return of Duvalier. Perhaps not as a means to -- perhaps to show that they have capacity to render justice, but more important to close it down in some way so that they can get on with the real business, which is reviewing the OAS report and determining how they go further. Just one thing I should mention, though.
MENDELSON-FORMANThat there were efforts -- and I know that Guy is probably 100 percent correct on his being a French national, but there were efforts to try and overturn his residency in France. And it's not clear -- I mean, the bigger questions are, where did he get the money to return? A Swiss court agreed to give him back $4 million...
MENDELSON-FORMAN...in February and he didn't get that. They held back and there were other people that are clearly in the country that could've bought him the ticket, but I just think that this is a diversionary tactic in many ways that takes away from the real issue at hand, which is the ongoing legitimacy crisis in the country.
NNAMDIQuestions remain. Johanna Mendelson-Forman is senior associate at the Americas Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Johanna, thank you so much for joining.
MENDELSON-FORMANOkay, thank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will talk about women in combat units in the military. Is it going to happen or why shouldn't it happen? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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